The legislature’s Republican minority outlined an agenda Friday that is a critique of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and a statement of principles for the 2012 election, not a plan designed to win favor with a Democratic governor and legislative majority.
House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr. of Norwalk and Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney of Fairfield attacked Malloy for his fiscal policies and offered grudging praise for his proposed education reforms.
Over 36½ minutes, nearly as long as the State of the State Address the governor delivered to open the session Feb. 8, Cafero and McKinney took a tag-team approach toward dissecting what they called Malloy’s overly optimistic fiscal assumptions.
They noted that Malloy’s budget assumes economic growth of 5.7 percent, not the 2.25 percent recently estimated by a University of Connecticut economist. And the governor projects several years of surpluses based on spending cuts not yet identified.
“So fact or fiction? The fiction is we are looking at surpluses,” McKinney said. “The facts are we are looking at deficits.”
Cafero said those numbers undercut the governor’s boasts about imposing tough medicine on a state that had a deficit of more than $3 billion when he took office a year ago, the result of a bad economy and the adoption of budgets that relied on one-shot revenues.
“What I’m hearing out there, from a lot of people, is we were told to swallow the tough medicine of tax increases and now you’re telling us even with historic tax increases, we are right back where we started from, talking deficits? Something’s wrong,” Cafero said.
But Cafero acknowledged during questions that the state is not back where it was a year ago. If it faces a deficit, it is not on the scope that confronted Connecticut last year, when the state had the nation’s largest per-capita deficit.
“But we were led to believe that this very tough and dramatic medicine was going to put this state on stable ground,” Cafero said.
Malloy is not on the ballot until 2014, but his administration responded as though it was in the heat of a campaign, issuing a statement from its top budget official, Benjamin Barnes:
“For 16 years under Republican governors, Rep. Cafero and Sen. McKinney held exactly zero press conferences to highlight the financial games the governors from their party were playing. Zero. If they’d spoken up then, they’d have more credibility now.”
Barnes said Malloy’s budgets have average growth that is 10 percent lower than the spending under his predecessor, Gov. M. Jodi Rell, and 20 percent lower than under her predecessor, Gov. John G. Rowland.
“Our growth projections are 3.8 percent, compared to 4.5 percent and 4.8 percent, respectively under the two previous Republican administrations,” he said.
Cafero and McKinney said it was legislative Democrats, not Republicans, who approved the final budget of the Rell administration, which saddled Malloy with an inherited deficit. The Democratic budget took effect without Rell’s signature after she declined the GOP’s call for a veto.
Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, said the Republican agenda is a campaign outline.
“I think it is too bad that coming out a bipartisan session on jobs they are right back on the barricades with a partisan political agenda,” Williams said.
Roy Occhiogrosso, the governor’s senior adviser, said the opposition party has a legitimate role in holding the governor and the majority accountable, but they give Malloy no credit for closing the deficit.
“He has not gotten the credit he deserves,” Occhiogrosso said. “They’ve made it pretty clear they intend to run against this governor and his record on fiscal issues.”
A year ago, Republicans tried to make nine special elections to fill legislative vacancies a referendum on the tax increase Malloy proposed shortly week before the elections. Democrats held onto seven of the nine seats.
Democrats now control the House, 99 to 52, and the Senate, 22 to 14. Republicans have no hope of forcing any change over the objections from Malloy or legislative Democrats.
Some of their agenda items clearly are directed at the voting public next fall, such as a call to raise the retirement age again. The state can only make that change through collective bargaining, and Malloy threatened layoffs last year to win some concessions on retirement benefits.
Normal retirement age for most state employees is 60 after 25 years of service or 62 with at least 10 years. State employees now have the right to retire at 55, but they pay the penalty of seeing their monthly benefit reduced by 3 percent for each year they leave early. Under the concessions deal, the penalty doubles to 6 percent, most likely forcing employees to work longer.
Other proposals may entice some Democrats, especially the idea of capping the gross receipts tax on gasoline. The GOP also wants a moratorium on new regulations and expedited permit processes, but the Malloy administration’s efforts to speed up permits is likely to blunt permitting as a Republican issue.
The Republicans also reiterated their oppositon to the Hartford-New Britain busway, calling for the state’s contribution to be redirected to other projects. They said the legislature should take steps to restore the autonomy of the state watchdog agencies.
With Republican governors, legislative Democrats were strong supporters of the watchdog agencies, insisting that their budgets not face screening by the executive branch. WIth the election of a Democrat as governor, legislative Democrats no longer demand budget autonomy for those agencies.
The GOP under Cafero and McKinney have tried each session to establish a Connecticut Republican brand based on fiscal responsibility and job creation, not on some of the social issues that are embraced by the more conservative national party.
But presidential years typically are difficult for Republicans in Connecticut. Over the past four presidential election years, Republicans have lost an average of five seats in the state House and one or two in the smaller state Senate.